WASHINGTON -- Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has been absent from the U.S. Capitol for six weeks now, at home recovering from a pair of back surgeries related to a severe case of arthritis.
But he made an appearance in the Senate on Thursday for what happened to be one of the deciding votes on a family planning bill.
Republican leaders were just shy of the number of votes needed to begin debate on legislation to disapprove of an Obama-era rule that bars states from withholding family planning funding from Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. So they waited for more than an hour for Isakson to get in from the airport and vote, which brought the tally to 50-50. Vice President Mike Pence, who accompanied Isakson into the Senate chamber, was then able to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Some reporters mused on Twitter that Isakson was brought in specifically to save the abortion measure after two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska, voiced their opposition. It wouldn’t be the first time in Senate history that an ailing senator was brought in to rip a bill from the jaws of defeat.
But Isakson insisted that he didn't plan to come in today to be the deciding vote but that it just happened that way. Here's a transcript of what the Republican told reporters, made possible by our Superman of a colleague, Jamie Dupree:
“I was gonna try and make a trip back this week to begin to get my legs under me and recovery. I’m in the fifth week of about a 12-week rehab from my spinal surgery and I wanted to start getting all my routines back to normal and so I called and told them I think I could be back this week, and if I could vote I’d like to vote.
We didn’t know what at the time it would be but it turned out to be the vice president’s tie-breaker.”
Originally, some thought Isakson was going to need to fly in and cast one of the deciding votes on the House GOP's health care bill. That legislation was ultimately deep-sixed, but Isakson said he would have been ready to vote after spending quite a bit of time watching the debate on C-SPAN while on the mend.
“I have watched the Congress of the United States on television for eight weeks trying to rehab from spinal surgery. I know more about it than I knew about it when I was here," Isakson quipped.
While Isakson received his doctor's approval to come up for the day, he isn't yet cleared to return to D.C. full-time. But he promised he'd be back “as often as I can be back, which will be often.”
Isakson may need to make another trip to Washington as soon as next week. Senate Republicans may need his vote to break through another Democratic resistance effort — an expected filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. GOP leaders have threatened to execute what is known as the “nuclear option” to prevent such a Democratic blockade on high court picks.
“My option is always to be the team player. I’m on the team and I’ll be doing what Mitch needs me to do,” Isakson said earlier Thursday about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to CNN.